Bethlehem church gunmen tasting good life in Gaza

But Palestinian militants criticize exile agreement

May 24, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Mazen Hussein didn't get back to his hotel room until just before dawn yesterday, having spent all night at a party where he regaled guests with stories about being trapped for 39 days in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.

He slept for a few hours in the hotel and was out the door again by 11 a.m., this time to a buffet lunch at a local university where students honored him for standing up to the Israeli army.

"They have good hospitality here," said Hussein, clean-shaven and casually dressed in brown loafers, slacks and button-down shirt. "We're all happy. We have found new friends and a second family. Everybody wants to talk to us."

For now, he is a hero, one of 26 Palestinians exiled at Israel's insistence, and with Yasser Arafat's acquiescence, from their homes in the West Bank to the Gaza Strip. Thirteen other militants are scattered among Cyprus and six countries in Europe.

But Palestinians are criticizing the agreements that ended the standoff at the church as a capitulation to Israel. The need to find a peaceful solution to Muslim gunmen seizing a Christian church surrounded by a Jewish army is not easily understood in a culture where honor defines character, and dishonor can mean death.

In the teeming streets of the Jabaliya refugee camp on the edge of Gaza, young men preparing for what they believe is an imminent invasion by the Israeli army say they understand why Hussein agreed to be deported, but they insist that they would not allow that to happen to them.

"It will be different if the soldiers come here," said Majdi Hassan, a 20-year-old textile worker sitting idly on the steps of a store. Nearby was a towering dirt mound blocking a street, one of many barricades intended to slow Israeli tanks, should they come.

"There will be a lot of killing," Hassan said, "and we will lose in the end. But the Israelis will be taught a lesson here that they didn't get in the West Bank."

Both the Israelis and the Palestinians made concessions to end the church siege. The Israelis did not get to arrest or interrogate the militants, such as Hussein; the Palestinians, though freed, had to leave land they had risked their lives to keep.

Hussein dismissed criticism as political gamesmanship that emerged after Arafat announced parliamentary elections for later this year, part of his response to calls for reform that began after the Israeli army pulled out of Bethlehem.

`We sacrificed'

The church siege had to end, Hussein said. Conditions had reached desperate levels; more than 100 civilians were trapped along with the militants, and the entire city of Bethlehem was under curfew because of the gunmen.

"We were staring at death," Hussein said, lounging on a comfortable couch in the foyer of the Zahra Hotel, two blocks from Gaza's sandy beach along the Mediterranean Sea. "We had to do something to lift the misery, of us and of the people in Bethlehem. We didn't agree with what was proposed, but we sacrificed ourselves."

Hussein said the deal "was very difficult to accept. I was crying when we put down our guns and left the church. But I stopped crying when I saw the soldiers. I didn't want to cry because I didn't want to appear weak in front of them."

Shedding his uniform

For five years, Hussein had been a Palestinian police officer on an anti-drug task force. Assigned to Bethlehem, he cracked his biggest case 10 months ago when he arrested an Arab-Israeli smuggling 10 pounds of marijuana into the city, he said.

At night, Hussein said, he shed his police uniform and joined with the local militia, the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, to fight Israel. Israel holds Hussein responsible for organizing attacks against Israeli settlers; he refused to describe his actions.

Hussein and others say that their coming to Gaza means that they did not truly surrender, for they are still in Palestinian territory. But the Gaza Strip is a virtual prison unto itself: The territory is jammed with 1.1 million people, hemmed in on one side by the sea and fenced on the others.

An oasis in Gaza

For now, Hussein and 18 other gunmen are staying in the Zahra Hotel, with their bills paid by the Palestinian Authority. The rest are in guesthouses run by the Red Cross. Some toil in menial jobs; most say they don't know what they want to do.

The hotel is an oasis. Its bright garden with cloth-covered tables contrasts starkly with the dirt street outside. Apart from the gunmen, only two other guests are staying there - both foreign journalists.

Armed guards are stationed outside the hotel to protect the guests, who were moved from a seaside hotel because it was within shelling range of Israeli gunboats. So the men sit, as they get used to Gaza's heat and humidity, and enjoy a beach most of them had never seen before.

And for the immediate future at least, they are still in demand on the party and lecture circuit. Yesterday afternoon, after the late-morning brunch, after the party that lasted nearly until dawn, the president of the student body at Aqsa University picked up Hussein and several other militants for lunch.

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